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The Remarkable Story of the Real Fagin from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

David James

Charles Dickens , Crime stories

Victorian Era  


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“You’ve got to pick a pocket or two”.

The character Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist is believed to be based on the criminal Ikey Solomon, who was a fence at the centre of a highly publicised arrest, escape, recapture, and trial.

Ikey Solomon as printed from a drawing by the Lambeth Police.

Solomon is also thought to have been a London underworld “kidsman”—an adult who recruited and trained children as pickpockets in exchange for providing them free food and lodging.

A photograph of an engraving in The Writings of Charles Dickens volume 4, Oliver Twist, titled 'Oliver amazed at the Dodger's Mode of 'going to Work' '
A photograph of an engraving in The Writings of Charles Dickens volume 4, Oliver Twist, titled ‘Oliver amazed at the Dodger’s Mode of ‘going to Work’ ‘

Born into a Jewish family in the East End of London, Solomon was one of nine children and was introduced to a life of crime at an early age by his father.

He opened a shop in Brighton and later a pawn shop in London through which he bought and sold stolen goods.

Luck ran out for him when in 1810 he and a friend named Joel Joseph were caught red-handed stealing a pocket book and £40 in bank notes from a gentleman outside the houses of parliament.

Police chased the pair into Westminster Hall and Joseph tried to eat the money while Solomon tried to hide the pocket book.

Both were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of stealing.

At 23, Solomon was all set for penal transportation to Australia.

But he ended up in a prison hulk called Zetland—a decommissioned ship used as a floating prison, popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

After four years, he was either released through error, or he escaped.

Her front line days over, HMS Temeraire served as a prison hulk before being paid off and sold to the breakers.
Her front line days over, HMS Temeraire served as a prison hulk before being paid off and sold to the breakers.

Undeterred, he returned to London and set up shop as a pawn broker, using it as a cover for trading in stolen property.

Nine years passed until he was arrested again and charged with theft and receiving.

Held at Newgate Prison, he managed to obtain a writ of habeas corpus and was brought before a judge.

When his case was dismissed, his guards escorted him back to Newgate Prison in a hackney carriage.

Unbeknown to the guards, the carriage driver was Solomon’s father-in-law, and at a prearranged spot, other friends of Solomon attacked the guards and set Ikey free.

This time, he fled the country—first to Denmark and then to New York, arriving in August 1827.

Authorities arrested Solomon’s wife. She was found guilty of receiving stolen goods and sentenced to penal transportation to Tasmania.

The judge allowed her six children to go with her.

When Ikey heard the news of his wife’s transportation, he decided to leave New York and board a ship for Tasmania under a false name.

Port Arthur Prison
View of Port Arthur, Tasmania one of the 11 penal sites constituting the Australian Convict Sites.

On arrival in Tasmania, it wasn’t long before some of his old criminal acquaintances recognized him, but as luck would have it, the Governor of the island couldn’t arrest him without a warrant from England.

Even when the governor wrote to request a warrant, it would be 12 months before it arrived.

Ikey was free to do as he pleased and opened a tobacco store.

So that his wife could stay with him, he paid a surety bond to guarantee she wouldn’t leave the island.

But the 12 months passed and the warrant for Ikey’s arrest finally arrived.

After another long voyage back to England for his trial at the Old Bailey, he was charged on eight counts of receiving stolen goods, found guilty on two, and shipped back to Tasmania to serve a 14-year sentence.

The trial was highly publicized in newspapers and pamphlets and it’s believed Charles Dickens used it as the basis for Fagin’s trial in Oliver Twist (Ch 52).

Just four years into his sentence, he was granted a ticket of leave on condition that he live at least 20 miles away from the capital city Hobart.

This meant that he was essentially free as long as he stayed within the district specified on the ticket.

Estranged from his wife and family, he would live another 15 years until his death in 1850.

The Jewish cemetery in Hobart where he was laid to rest was bulldozed and the land converted to an apartment complex.

All signs of his life are long gone, but his story lives on in the writings of Charles Dickens and the character Fagin.

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For other uses, see Fagin (disambiguation) .

‹ The template Infobox character is being considered for merging . ›
caption = Fagin in a watercolour by 'Kyd'
Created by Charles Dickens
Portrayed by Lon Chaney, Sr. (1922), Irving Pichel (1933), Alec Guinness (1948), Ron Moody (1968), Dom DeLuise (voice, 1988), Richard Dreyfuss (1997), Gary Farmer (2003), Ben Kingsley (2005), Timothy Spall (2007), Russ Abbott (2010/11), Noah Berry (2011), Rowan Atkinson (2010/11), Neil Morrisey (2011/12), Harry Moore (2012), Anton Lesser (2015)
Occupation Criminal

Fagin /ˈfɡɪn/ is a fictional character in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist . In the preface to the novel, he is described as a “receiver of stolen goods”. He is the leader of a group of children (the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates among them) whom he teaches to make their livings by pickpocketing and other criminal activities, in exchange for shelter. A distinguishing trait is his constant—and insincere—use of the phrase “my dear” when addressing others. At the time of the novel, he is said by another character, Monks , to have already made criminals out of “scores” of children. Nancy , who is the lover of Bill Sikes (the novel’s lead villain), is confirmed to be Fagin’s former pupil.

Fagin is a self-confessed miser who, despite the wealth he has acquired, does very little to improve the squalid lives of the children he guards, or his own. In the second chapter of his appearance, he is shown (when talking to himself) that he cares less for their welfare, than that they do not “peach” (inform) on him and the other children. Still darker sides to the character’s nature are shown when he beats the Artful Dodger for not bringing Oliver back; in his attempted beating of Oliver for trying to escape; and in his own involvement with various plots and schemes throughout the story. He indirectly but intentionally causes the death of Nancy by falsely informing Sikes that she had betrayed him, when in reality she had shielded Sikes from the law, whereupon Sikes kills her. Near the end of the book, Fagin is captured and sentenced to be hanged, in a chapter that portrays him as pitiable in his anguish.

In popular culture, Fagin (or at least his name) is used in comparison with adults who use children for illegal activities.


  • 1 Historical basis
  • 2 Allegations of antisemitism
  • 3 Film, theatre and television
  • 4 References
  • 5 Further reading
  • 6 External links

Historical basis[ edit ]

Dickens took Fagin’s name from a friend he had known in his youth while working in a boot-blacking factory. [1]

Fagin’s character might be based on the criminal Ikey Solomon , who was a fence at the centre of a highly publicised arrest, escape, recapture, and trial. [2] [3] Some accounts of Solomon also describe him as a London underworld “kidsman” (a kidsman was an adult who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole). The popularity of Dickens’ novel caused “fagin” to replace “kidsman” in some crime circles, denoting an adult who teaches minors to steal and keeps a major portion of the loot.

Other sources, such as Howard Mancing in The Cervantes Encyclopedia, claim that Fagin is assumed to be modeled on Monipodio, one of the main characters in Miguel de Cervantes ‘ Rinconete y Cortadillo (1613). Monipodio is the leader of a criminal ring in 17th-century Seville that features cutpurses and cape stealers.

Allegations of antisemitism[ edit ]

See also: Racism in the work of Charles Dickens

Fence Ikey Solomon , on whom Fagin has often been said to be based

Fagin has been the subject of much debate over antisemitism , during Dickens’ lifetime and in modern times. In an introduction to a 1981 Bantam Books reissue of Oliver Twist, for example, Irving Howe wrote that Fagin was considered an “archetypical Jewish villain.” [4] The first 38 chapters of the book refer to Fagin by his racial and religious origin 257 times, calling him “the Jew”, against 42 uses of “Fagin” or “the old man”. In 2005, novelist Norman Lebrecht wrote that “A more vicious stigmatisation of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined and it was not by any means unintended.” [5] Dickens, who had extensive knowledge of London street life, wrote that he had made Fagin Jewish because: “it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew”. [6] It is often argued that Fagin was based on a specific Jewish criminal of the era, Ikey Solomon . [7] Dickens also claimed that by calling Fagin “the Jew” he had meant no imputation against the Jewish people: “I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…” [8]

In later editions of the book, printed during his lifetime, Dickens excised over 180 instances of ‘Jew’ from the text. [9] This occurred after Dickens sold his London home in 1860 to a Jewish banker, James Davis, who objected to the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness in the novel. When he sold the house, Dickens allegedly told a friend: “The purchaser of Tavistock House will be a Jew Money-Lender” before later saying: “I must say that in all things the purchaser has behaved thoroughly well, and that I cannot call to mind any occasion when I have had moneydealings with anyone that has been so satisfactory, considerate and trusting.” [5]

Dickens became friendly with Eliza (Davis’ wife), who told him in a letter in 1863 that Jews regarded his portrayal of Fagin a “great wrong” to their people. Dickens then started to revise Oliver Twist, removing all mention of “the Jew” from the last 15 chapters; and later wrote in reply: “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence”. In one of his final public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of all stereotypical caricature. A contemporary report observed: “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” [5] [8]

In 1865, in Our Mutual Friend , Dickens created a number of Jewish characters, the most important being Mr Riah, an elderly Jew who finds jobs for downcast young women in Jewish-owned factories. One of the two heroines, Lizzie Hexam, defends her Jewish employers: “The gentleman certainly is a Jew, and the lady, his wife, is a Jewess, and I was brought to their notice by a Jew. But I think there cannot be kinder people in the world.” [8]

The comic book creator Will Eisner , disturbed by the antisemitism in the typical depiction of the character, created a graphic novel in 2003 titled Fagin the Jew . In this book, the back story of the character and events of Oliver Twist are depicted from his point of view.

Film, theatre and television[ edit ]

Fagin waits to be hanged.

Numerous prominent actors have played the character of Fagin. Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin in David Lean’s movie adaptation of Oliver Twist , with controversial make-up by Stuart Freeborn which exaggerated stereotypical Jewish facial features . The release of the film in the USA was delayed for three years on charges of being anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the New York Board of Rabbis . It was finally released in the United States in 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness’ performance cut.

Ron Moody ‘s portrayal in the original London production of the musical Oliver! by Lionel Bart , which he repeated in the Oscar-winning 1968 film , is recognisably influenced by Guinness’ portrayal. The supposedly “anti-semitic” quality of Guinness’ portrayal was considerably toned down in the musical, partly because of Moody being Jewish himself; he was in fact the first Jewish actor to portray Fagin. While Fagin remains an unrepentant thief, he is a much more sympathetic and comic character than he is in the novel. His plot with Monks is deleted and his role in Nancy’s death is similarly excised, and he is portrayed as being cowardly and deeply afraid of Bill Sykes. Bart’s musical also deletes Fagin’s arrest and the musical ends with Fagin, faced with beginning again, pondering the possibility of going straight. The film version reverses this ending, with Fagin briefly considering reformation, but then gleefully teaming up again with Dodger to start their racket again. Moody won a Golden Globe for his performance, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor . When Oliver! was brought to Broadway in 1964, Fagin was portrayed by Clive Revill , but in a 1984 revival, Moody reprised his performance opposite Tony Award winner Patti LuPone , who played Nancy. Moody later stated: “Fate destined me to play Fagin. It was the part of a lifetime.” [10]

Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley ‘s portrayal of Fagin in Roman Polanski ‘s 2005 screen adaptation was also inspired by the 1948 version.

In the 1980 ATV series The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist, Fagin was played by David Swift . In this 13-episode series, Fagin has escaped his hanging by pretending to have had a stroke, which has left him paralyzed (and therefore unfit to be executed) and is in hiding at The Three Cripples, tended to by Barney.

In the 1982 made-for-TV movie version, Fagin is portrayed by George C. Scott . Though the character is generally portrayed as elderly, diminutive and homely, Scott’s version of the character was markedly younger, stronger, and better looking. Also, this version of the character had him more caring of his orphan charges, feeding them well and treating them with obvious concern.

In the 1985 miniseries , Fagin is portrayed by Eric Porter .

In Disney’s animated version, Oliver & Company (1988), Fagin is a kind-hearted but poor man living in New York. He lives on a houseboat with his five dogs and is desperately searching for money to repay his debts to the New York loan shark Sykes. He is voiced by Dom DeLuise .

In 1994, Oliver! was revived in London. Fagin was played by many noted British actors and comedians, including Jonathan Pryce , George Layton , Jim Dale , Russ Abbot , Barry Humphries (who had played Mr Sowerberry in the original 1960 London production of Oliver! ) and Robert Lindsay , who won an Olivier Award for his performance. The different actors playing Fagin were distinguished by their different costumes, especially their coats. Pryce used a patched red and brown coat, while Lindsay used the traditional dark green overcoat seen in the 1968 film version.

In Disney’s 1997 live action television production, Oliver Twist , Fagin is played by Richard Dreyfuss .

In the 1997 film Twisted (a film loosely based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist ) the Fagin character is played by actor William Hickey .

In the 2003 film Twist (a film loosely based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist ) Fagin is played by actor Gary Farmer .

In the 2007 BBC television adaptation Fagin is played by Timothy Spall . Contrary to his appearance in the novel, he is beardless and overweight in this version. He is also a more sympathetic character.

In December 2008, Oliver! was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane , London with Rowan Atkinson playing the character. This role was taken over by Omid Djalili in July 2009. Griff Rhys Jones took over the role from Omid Djalili in December 2009. He was succeeded by Russ Abbot in June 2010.

In 2015-16, BBC2’s Dickensian Fagin was played by the actor Anton Lesser .

References[ edit ]

  1. ^ Ackroyd, Peter (3 September 1990). Dickens. Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd . pp. 77–78. ISBN   1-85619-000-5 .

  2. ^ Sackville O’Donnell, Judith (2002). The First Fagin: the True Story of Ikey Solomon. Acland. ISBN   0-9585576-2-4 .
  3. ^ Montagu, Euan; Tobias, John J (28 March 1974). The Prince of Fences: Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons. Vallentine Mitchell . ISBN   0-85303-174-6 .
  4. ^ Dickens, Charles (22 January 1982). Oliver Twist (A Bantam classic). Bantam USA. ISBN   0-553-21050-5 .
  5. ^ a b c Lebrecht, Norman (29 September 2005). “How racist is Oliver Twist?” . La Scena Musicale. Retrieved 2009-02-08.
  6. ^ Howe, Irving. “Oliver Twist – introduction” . Retrieved 2009-10-21.
  7. ^ Donald Hawes, Who’s Who in Dickens, Routledge, London, 2002, p.75.
  8. ^ a b c Johnson, Edgar (1 January 1952). “Intimations of Mortality”. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph . Simon & Schuster. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
  9. ^ Nunberg, Geoffrey (15 October 2001). The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 126. ISBN   0-618-11603-6 .
  10. ^ “Oliver! actor Ron Moody dies aged 91” . BBC News. 11 June 2015.

Further reading[ edit ]

  • Howe, Irving (28 October 1997). Selected Writings, 1950-1990. Thomson Learning. ISBN   0-15-680636-3 .

External links[ edit ]

  • Media related to Fagin at Wikimedia Commons
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Charles Dickens ‘ Oliver Twist
  • Oliver Twist
  • Bill Sikes
  • Fagin
  • Mr. Brownlow
  • Nancy
  • Rose Maylie
  • Monks
  • The Artful Dodger
  • Charley Bates
  • Mr. Sowerberry
Film adaptations
  • Oliver Twist (1909)
  • Oliver Twist (1912)
  • Oliver Twist (1912)
  • Oliver Twist (1916)
  • Oliver Twist (1919)
  • Oliver Twist (1922)
  • Oliver Twist (1933)
  • Oliver Twist (1948)
  • Chitti Tammudu (1962)
  • Oliver! (1968)
  • Oliver Twist (1982)
  • Las Aventuras de Oliver Twist (1987)
  • Oliver Twist (1997)
  • Oliver Twist (2005)
Film retellings
  • Manik (1961)
  • Oliver & Company (1988)
  • Twisted (1997)
  • Twist (2003)
  • Boy Called Twist (2004)
TV adaptations
  • Oliver Twist (1982 TV film)
  • Oliver Twist (1985 TV miniseries)
  • Saban’s Adventures of Oliver Twist (1996 TV series)
  • Oliver Twist (1999 miniseries)
  • Oliver Twist (2007 miniseries)
  • Oliver! (1960)
  • ” As Long as He Needs Me “
  • ” Consider Yourself “
  • D’banj’s 2012 song
  • ” Food, Glorious Food “
  • ” I’d Do Anything “
  • ” Oliver! “
  • ” Oom-Pah-Pah “
  • Vaughn De Leath’s 1921 song
  • ” Where Is Love? “
  • ” You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two “
  • Oliver! (soundtrack to the 1968 film)
  • Escape of the Artful Dodger (2001 TV series retelling)
  • Fagin the Jew (2003 graphic novel)
  • Oliver and the Artful Dodger (1972 TV film)
  • I’d Do Anything (2008 TV series)
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